For me an excellent magazine cover is all about the right combination of excellent models (or cover subject in general), stunning photography and appropriate use of text. I don't like cover text, its a pet peeve but text should at least be in an attractive font.
You practically took the words out of my mouth! I'm relieved to finally find someone who feels the same way I do about covers. I'm all for simplistic style covers, although you don't see many of those now days.
The following are covers I find exceptional, due to the healthy balance of text/pictures.
Herfamedgoodlooks.com | xroads.virginia.edu
I'm also a fan of "vintage" covers - like the last image above, for instance. That is a cover of Vogue from ~1920's, and I can only wish that someday editors will look back to those designs for inspiration. Maybe it's the artist in me, but I adore seeing drawings of clothes as opposed to actual pictures of clothes.
For me, my personal favourite is a cover that features full-on glamour, but combines it with art direction that doesn't dumb down the image by cluttering it with text, so the strength of the beauty shines through. And rather than being bland, sometimes glamorous images can have a strange or quietly menacing undertone to them, if you can look beyond the tonged hair and perfect lipstick...
Using Vogue Italia alone for examples (image credit to fashion-iconography.net):
__________________ You're perfect, yes, it's true. But without me, you're only you.
My favourite covers in this year:
VOGUE Russia: May, September, December 2008 (Masha Novoselova, Ana Selezneva, Naomi Campbell)
ELLE Russia: November 2007, September,November 2008 (Paris Hilton, Charlize Theron, Olga Kurylenko)
COSMOPOLITAN Georgia: April, July-August 2008 (Gisele Bundchen, Ashlee Simpson)